Mimicking conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at a talk Friday evening, Sister Helen Prejean traded authenticity for passion. Quoting Scalia, she flung back an arm or pounded her hand against her chest to suggest the size of the man's ego and, though Scalia is from New Jersey, she stepped up her Louisiana drawl. To Prejean, Scalia is as self-righteous and narrow-minded as a fundamentalist preacher from Alabama, last week casting one of four dissenting votes against abolishing the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles. Scalia is Prejean's boogeyman, justifying his support of capital punishment with religion, claiming that it's the job of the government to perform God's will.
Prejean, the nun portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the 1996 film Dead Man Walking, gave the closing talk at the University of San Diego's 16th annual social issues conference, a three-day event that looked at everything from human trafficking to latent racism. Prejean's 75-minute talk focused largely on what she's learned after spending two decades working with death-row inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary-better known simply as "Angola"-and witnessing the executions of six of those men, beginning with Patrick Sonnier.
Prejean took up an offer to correspond with a death-row inmate in 1982, unaware, she said, that less than three years later she'd walk with him to the electric chair.
Sonnier and his brother, Eddie, were convicted for the shooting deaths of high-school sweethearts David LeBlanc and Loretta Bourque. The teens' badly beaten bodies were found in a sugarcane field; both had been shot in the back of the head. Eddie was sentenced to life while Patrick got death. Eddie later confessed that although his brother attacked both teens, he was the one who pulled the trigger. That confession wasn't enough to stop Patrick's execution.
Prejean got to know Sonnier before she knew anything about the crime, she told the audience. When she found out what he had done, she had a difficult time reconciling the man with the crime. When she first looked through a file on the murders, on top was a newspaper clipping.
"There's a picture of them in their prom outfits," Prejean recalled of the victims. She says she's still haunted by the photos of the two teens.
"One of the reasons we have the death penalty is when we hear stories like this and we look into faces, when we read about people going into a home and killing two elderly, feeble people, or when we read about a mother being carjacked and she and her children being killed... we feel a deep outrage, at the horror that an innocent human life could be so violated."
It's a natural, moral response, she said.
"We can have this whole talk tonight and tomorrow morning look in the paper and read about an innocent person who's been killed and feel outrage-but it's what we do with the outrage."
Prejean lives in the St. Thomas housing projects in New Orleans, where she's seen how kids growing up there can easily turn to violence. This, she believes, is a public-health issue, not necessarily a criminal-justice issue. She cited a survey of police chiefs asked whether they believed the death penalty deterred crime-many of them did not. In fact, she said, there was a strong feeling among some of the police chiefs that abolishing the death penalty would force politicians to look at the genesis of violent crime-what makes a person become the "worst of the worst"-the "category" of criminals for which the death penalty is ostensibly reserved.
"What kind of education do we have?" she asked, pointing out that California spends more on prisons than on education. "What happens to at-risk kids? What happens to people who don't get a living wage, people who don't get healthcare? What is it like to, from the time you're born, feel like a nobody?"
More than 90 percent of the people on death row were abused as children or suffer from mental illness, she said.
Prejean told the audience that she believes public support for the death penalty is waning. Indicative of this is the fact that John Kerry's anti-death penalty stance didn't prompt any debate by his opponent.
"Why not?" Prejean asked. "Why didn't George W. Bush bring it up and talk about his 152 executions over which he presided" while governor of Texas?
"In practice, we are beginning to shut down the death penalty," she said. She cited the moratorium Illinois Gov. Ed Ryan declared in that state after 13 people on death row were exonerated. The 13th man went free, Prejean said, after two journalism students decided to take another look at his case and found errors and a witness who wanted to recant her testimony.
Still, "over 80 percent of the executions continue in the Southern states, and the regional disparity in practice is very pronounced. People have questions; it's time for discourse," she said.
That discourse need not take place only in the political arena. Prejean shared a story that has since become fodder for two master's theses: A lawyer friend of hers who was looking over a death penalty case at home when his young son asked what he was reading. The father explained that the man had, "done something really bad. He got into a fight and he killed a man."
"What are they going to do to him?" asked the child.
"They want to execute him in the electric chair," his dad replied.
"Who's going to kill them for killing him?" the son asked.